Authors: Jillian Hart
Tags: #Historical romance, #wrangler, #montana, #cowboy
By Jillian Hart
Copyright © 2000 by Jill Strickler
Electronic Edition Copyright © 2012
Cover art by Kimberly Killion, Hot Damn Designs
E-book formatted by Jessica Lewis
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return to your online retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the author’s work.
Table of Contents
Montana Territory, August, 1869
Kit Chapman had a plan. Maybe not the most brilliant of plans, but it was the best she could do under the circumstances. She tucked in a muslin shirt Pa had left behind, straightened her red suspender straps and donned her gray Stetson to hide the knot of her honey-blond hair. Add a few hat pins and when she looked in the cracked mirror, she hardly recognized herself. Exactly what she'd been hoping for.
"Kit? Here's your–" Mindy skidded to a stop in the makeshift doorway. She was a sweet little sister, only fourteen, a blond pixie in a blue calico dress. "Gosh, I don't even recognize you. You look like Uncle Howie."
"And that's what I want everyone to think." Their pa's youngest brother was only a few years her senior, which was convenient for her plan. The plan that had kept her up most nights for the last seven days since their father moved on to greener pastures.
Hubert Chapman was a man who always figured the grass was greener anywhere he wasn't. When he'd won this patch of land in a poker game last month, she finally had a real home, instead of wandering from one dusty, lawless town to the next. Until Pa, who had a weakness for heavy drinking and cigar smoking, had lit a match when he'd been too drunk to stay awake and started the fire that burned their one room cabin to the ground. Pa decided it was time for them to move on again. She'd refused, and he'd left without them.
"This is a bad idea." Mindy handed over the canteen she'd filled from the well. "What happens if someone figures it out?"
"No one will. Look at me. All I'm missing is a mustache." A little tree sap on her upper lip and the fine hair she'd trimmed from the end of her braid and sewn onto a tiny piece of muslin would take care of that. "See? It's a little one, hairy enough to hide the fabric scrap and let everyone know I'm no girl."
"But you are a girl."
"Not tonight." Her heart hammered like a trapped bird behind her ribs, but she didn't need to let her little sister know. Mindy was prone to worry and–honestly–there was no guarantee this was going to work. They'd be homeless, living in a makeshift tent forever if it didn't, so it was important to think positive.
The fake mustache tickled her nose and upper lip, but on careful inspection it looked real enough. Not bad at all. In a poorly lit saloon full of drunk men, no one would notice a thing.
"I'm scared." Mindy bit her bottom lip. "What if you run into robbers on the way to town?"
"I've got Pa's revolver. I know how to use it." "What if you run into a wild animal or Indians attack? There was that trouble over in Eagle Creek—"
"That's far enough away we don't have to worry. The soldiers at Fort Shaw will handle things."
"Folks could recognize you." Mindy plunked down on a chopped log that served as a chair. Worry knit her ivory forehead, where soft golden locks curled.
"I've been to town once. No one will hardly remember me, and besides, I certainly didn't look like this."
"Yeah, but still." Mindy blew out a sigh. "Your mustache could come off. Your bindings could unravel—"
"—And considering I'm not wearing a corset, that might be a dead giveaway." She stepped back to take in the full effect in the mirror. Maybe she could pass for a young man of nineteen or twenty. Old enough to pack a gun with authority and make the rough and the troublesome neighbor, Tannen Sinclair, think twice about giving her trouble. "Stop worrying, sweetie. This is going to go fine. I've thought everything through carefully. Trust me. This is our best plan and it's going to work."
Because if it didn't, they'd all be in big trouble. She winced as she pulled on Pa's leather riding gloves. They were sizes too large, but at least they would hide her red and scorched hands. "You stay here and hold down the fort."
"No, Fred will stay here with you." She grabbed the canteen and headed for the tent flap.
"Does Fred know that?" Mindy tagged along.
"I thought he did. Maybe I was wrong." Her shadow fell on the green, wildflower-studded grass that carpeted the yard outside the tent and reached all the way to the scrubby cottonwoods. The trees shaded a gurgling creek, the only break in the endless rise and roll of the Montana prairie. She blinked in the bright sunshine and spotted her little brother, the smallest of the Chapman clan, trotting over with two horses.
Uh, oh. Maybe Fred wasn't as enamored with her plan as she'd thought.
"I only need one of those." She nodded toward the horses, saddled and ready to go. "You weren't thinking you'd ride along with me, were you?"
"Someone's got to protect you. I'm a good shot, you know I am." Fred ambled close, twelve years old. Blond hair stuck out from beneath his straw hat, the sun kissed his nose dotted with freckles and his blue eyes blazed with determination. Misguided determination, but his heart was in the right place. "I'm gonna ride shotgun."
"No, you're protecting Mindy. She can't stay here alone." Who knew what trouble of the two legged variety lurked out there? Kit scanned the endless plains and shivered. Lately she couldn't shake the feeling someone was watching her now and again. It was an unsettling feeling. "Unsaddle that horse. You can't come with me."
"Aw, Kit. I'm all loaded up in case of trouble."
"I am too." She grabbed the Winchester off the tongue of the wagon, now serving as one wall of their makeshift tent. The canvas cover flapped as the breeze gusted, bringing with it the scents of sun-drying grass and wild roses. Her stomach clenched as she slipped the gun into its saddle holster and gathered Blue's reigns in one hand.
The sweet sorrel nuzzled her shoulder, checking out the different garments.
"I should be back by midnight. Mindy, fix supper like always. Fred, you be sure and haul wood for the fire and water for cooking. And no arguing. Got it?"
"But Kit, I'd rather go with you." The boy swallowed hard. "What if you don't come back?"
"I'll come back." She gave the brim of his hat a tug. Loss haunted the boy's eyes, he missed Pa. They all did. She didn't miss the worry cinching up his forehead. She had to show him that their lives were about to get better. That he could trust her in a way they never could trust Pa. "Things will be fine, you'll see. I'll bring back candy."
"Candy?" He lit up. "For me?"
"It'd be a shame if it all went to Mindy." She cast one long look at her sister, looking uncertain standing in the tent doorway. She didn't know if she really could provide for the three of them, but there was no room for failure. She tossed a smile at her brother. "I bet you a piece of peppermint that I come back with enough winnings to start on the second part of my plan."
"Okay!" Fred clung to the horse Pa had left them, an old bay gelding he'd won in a game over in Virginia City. When he'd won the battered wagon, they had a place to sleep that wasn't on the ground.
Blue gave a curious snort and lipped her chin, heading for her mustache.
"It's new," she told him. "Do you think it looks good on me?"
The big red horse shook his head, blowing out air and making her laugh.
"All right, big boy, it's just you and me." She mounted up. "Are you ready?"
Blue arched his neck, pulling on his bit. His red mane rippled in the wind as he took off along the lane nearly hidden with grass. Daisies waved in the breeze, and larks flitted across the prairie grass as she rode down the slope. The tent and her siblings disappeared from sight.
Now came the hard part. Could she really imitate a man? She'd never much thought about the differences between genders—well, the
differences. How did a man ride in a saddle? She'd never thought to notice how Pa held his reins.
What if she was holding them in a girly way? If she came across another rider on the road to town, she wanted them to see Uncle Howie and not the gambler's daughter she was. She moved the leather straps around in her hand until she found what she hoped was a more masculine pose.
Blue was used to her ruminating and took the turn on his own, clomping lightly onto the main county road to town.
"I can do this, right?" she asked him.
He nickered low in his throat, which was likely an enthusiastic affirmation of his confidence in her.
"I think so, too." She even had a saloon all picked out. "I'll stop by the mercantile first. Pick up a few staples and candy. Mindy and Fred have been working really hard."
Blue listened companionably as the larks squawked and fled.
No, not fled,
That couldn't be a good sign. She turned her attention to her surroundings. Prairie all around her. Big cloudless blue sky. Long ribbon of road cutting through the amber-tipped grasses. No obvious sign of danger, but still, there was something that made the back of her neck itch.
There was that feeling again, like she was being watched. Targeted. Her stomach knotted into a hard ball. Something was definitely wrong. The grass rustled to her right. Blue shied as something long slithered across the wagon-rutted road.
"Gosh, it's only a snake, Blue." She pulled her horse to a stop. Relief hissed out of her. The reptile paused, considering the threat of the horse's shadow falling across its path. She unholstered the Winchester, just in case. Better safe than sorry. But the rattler glided onward and disappeared into the tall grasses on the other side.
Didn't that show how jumpy she was? The roads weren't safe for a female alone, but luckily she was not exactly looking like a woman.
Nothing bad is gonna happen.
Except Blue didn't seem to agree. He sidestepped, nickering low in his throat. Unsettled, when he should be calm.
That's when the little hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. Every single one of them. The bear charged out of nowhere, big, black and hairy, focused beady bear eyes on her, loping alarmingly fast on all fours.
Blue's whinny came like a scream, and before she could react, her bottom lost contact with the saddle, the rifle flew out of her grasp and she spiraled head over heels through the air. She hit the ground with an oomph and a view of Blue wildly galloping down the road, perhaps too afraid to realize she wasn't on his back.
The bear closed in and she scrambled to her feet. No weapon. No way to outrun him. Twenty yards. Ten yards. Her instincts screamed at her to run, but her feet didn't want to obey. No way to stop the bear, his pointed teeth gleaming in the cavern of his enormous open mouth. He was likely going to tear her to bite-sized pieces.